WASHINGTON — Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes took the stand in his own defense Friday — a risky move that could open him up to potentially damaging cross-examination from federal prosecutors seeking to convict him of conspiring to stop the transfer of presidential power.
Rhodes, 57, was one of 11 Oath Keepers indicted in January on multiple conspiracy charges, including a rarely used charge of seditious conspiracy. Prosecutors rested their case Thursday in the ongoing trial of Rhodes and four of his alleged co-conspirators.
Throughout 20 days of evidence, the Justice Department sought to portray Rhodes as an anti-government extremist who rejected the results of the 2020 election and publicly — and repeatedly — advocated for armed revolution if former President Donald Trump did not heed his call to invoke the Insurrection Act and mobilize the Oath Keepers militia.
On Friday, one of Rhodes' attorneys, Phillip Linder, called him to the stand in an attempt to rebut that picture.
Rhodes' testimony began with an overview of his family's military history, including a grandfather who served as a ball-turret gunner during WWII and his father's service in the Marines. Rhodes himself enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1983. He said he initially intended to join the Special Forces, but "washed out" because he was, as he described it, "too immature" to learn Morse Code. Rhodes wound up being reassigned as a paratrooper and was injured during a nighttime training jump. He was eventually honorably discharged as a disabled veteran.
Rhodes eventually worked for a time as a staffer for then-Congressman Ron Paul — a bit of testimony that elicited the first of what would be many insights into the Oath Keepers founder's political views.
"My political orientation is libertarian," Rhodes said.
Rhodes' interest in politics and history dominated much of his testimony. Linder described him at one point as a "constitutional expert," and Rhodes said he considered the Bill of Rights to be the "crown jewel" of the U.S. Constitution. Much like in the open letters he published to Trump in the weeks after the 2020 election, Rhodes' testimony repeatedly wove in historical references, particularly to the period of the American Revolution and early days of the republic. Rhodes appeared to choke up at many points during the morning, including when he talked about a letter President John Adams wrote to members of the Massachusetts Militia in 1798 in which he declared the constitution was made for a "moral and religious" people — although Rhodes used instead the word "righteous."
Rhodes also talked about the Oath Keepers' own history, including their presence at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Louisville, Kentucky, during protests of police killings of Black residents. Rhodes claimed, without providing any evidence, that the Oath Keepers "embarrassed" local authorities with their professionalism in the face of protestors and even provided training to them on how how to infiltrate crowds.
"Our M.O. is 'the quiet professional' and 'stay calm,'" Rhodes said.
Public reporting at the time suggested the militia's presence at highly volatile moments in communities they were largely not part of received a far more mixed reception — particularly their regular habit of attending protests while openly carrying weapons.
During testimony, Rhodes' demeanor was relaxed. He smiled and joked with court staff and and leaned back casually in his chair while moving from topic to topic. He spoke at length about antifa, including making the unfounded claim that members of the movement had "attacked the White House" and nearly "overrun" the Secret Service. Rhodes seemed to be referring to a May 2020 incident when Trump was briefly taken to a bunker during protests against police brutality at Lafayette Square. While some demonstrators did throw bricks, rocks and fireworks, White House officials at the time said the fence was never crossed and no Secret Service members were ever in danger.
RELATED: Reports: President Trump taken to bunker as protesters gathered outside the White House Friday
Rhodes was on the stand for approximately an hour-and-a-half on Friday. Little of his testimony dealt directly with Jan. 6, although he did cover two points prosecutors are likely to attempt to connect during cross-examination. One was the Oath Keepers' founding purpose which was, according to Rhodes, about training veterans about their "duty to say no" to unconstitutional orders. The second was Rhodes' own belief that the 2020 election was unconstitutional and illegitimate.
"I believed the elections was unconstitutional... and that made it invalid," Rhodes said. "And you really can't have a winner of an unconstitutional election."
Prosecutors are likely to press Rhodes on what he believed his and the Oath Keepers duty was in response to an election he believed was stolen as well as numerous public statements he made about civil war and "bloody revolution" in the wake of Trump's loss. Rhodes could also face questioning about a recording jurors heard at the end of the government's case in which he warned Trump's family could be "killed like the Romanovs" if the former president didn't heed his advice to invoke the Insurrection Act.
The recording was made by a man named Jason Alpers, who'd been connected with Rhodes for the purpose of passing a message to Trump on Jan. 10, 2021, following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In the recording, Alpers could be heard telling Rhodes he didn't want a civil war. Rhodes responded, "Well, you're gonna have it bud."
Direct examination of Rhodes was expected to finish Monday morning. It was unclear whether any attorneys for Rhodes' co-defendants would seek to cross-examine him prior to the government.
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